HAMPDEN, Maine — The graduation of teammates inevitably challenges those who return to their high school basketball teams to adapt to new teammates, new opponents and new roles.
One of the more significant role changes in Eastern Maine this winter involves Hampden Academy senior guard Christian McCue, best known as a spot-up sharpshooter during his first three varsity seasons with the Broncos who last winter led the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference Class A ranks in 3-pointers.
Hampden’s success this year still will require McCue to find the range from long distance, but with his backcourt teammate of the last two years, 2011 Mr. Basketball finalist and Bangor Daily News All-Maine first-team choice Graham Safford, now starting as a freshman at Bates College in Lewiston, McCue’s perimeter perspective will become much broader.
“Christian’s job is different this year,” said Hampden Academy coach Russ Bartlett, whose Broncos will host defending Class A state champion Bangor in their mutual season opener Friday night. “Last year his job was to shoot the ball on kick-outs, really. This year he’s got to control the tempo of the game for us and he has to guard probably the best guard on the other team.
“He’s got a lot of responsibility, understanding that he’s the primary guy to deliver the ball but that we’ve also got to continue to find shots for him after he gives the ball up.”
McCue spent the offseason focused on his eventual transition from 3-point threat to scoring point guard, working on his ballhandling with an eye toward using dribble penetration to create offensive opportunities for his teammates.
“Compared to what it’s been, I think I’m head and shoulders above where I was last year,” said McCue. “I worked on that all spring and summer, and hopefully now when I take it to the basket it can open things up for the whole team.”
McCue also is drawing upon what he learned from playing with Safford, who led Hampden scoring, rebounding, assists and steals last year while shooting 59.5 percent from the field, 78.4 percent from the free-throw line and 36.8 percent from beyond the 3-point arc.
“He was always in attack mode, but he wasn’t selfish,” said McCue. “He was always trying to get to the rim, and that causes a lot of chaos for the other team and that’s when he’d find the open guy like me or the other big guys.”
“I think he’s a good model to try to model my game after this year because of how much of an impact he had. If I can have the same kind of impact in points and assists, I think we’ll be good.”
Generating his own shots, either off the dribble or by getting the ball back in a catch-and-shoot situation after making an initial pass, likely will be critical to Hampden’s hopes of another deep run in the Eastern A tournament.
The Broncos were the preseason pick to win the regional title in a poll of KVAC Class A coaches after advancing to the Eastern Maine semifinals last year before being knocked out by Edward Little of Auburn.
And at 6 foot 2 inches, McCue will be the shortest starter in a lineup that will include three teammates 6 foot 5 inches or taller, so his ability to score from the outside will have a bearing on how much space the big guys will have to work with closer to the basket.
“He’s been very unselfish, and he understands about delivering the ball and when there are the shots that I should be taking, and making sure he’s playing to his strengths,” said Bartlett. “Christian’s a great shooter off the pass, and we all understand that’s one of his strengths so how do we do that when he’s the point guard? That’s my job to teach.”
How well the Broncos have learned that lesson to date will be among the tests the team will face in its regular-season debut against rival Bangor.
Hampden defeated the Rams 65-52 in their mutual opener a year ago — but it was the last time Bangor lost en route to winning the state title.
But while Bangor will bring a 21-game winning streak into Friday’s 7 p.m. game, it also will feature a new-look lineup with 6-foot-6-inch senior Patrick Stewart the only returning starter.
“I wish we could open up against somebody besides Hampden down there,” said Bangor coach Roger Reed. “But that’s not the way it’s going to be. We opened up there last year and that wasn’t good, either, but we’ll go down there and play hard. That’s basically what we’ve got to do, we’ve got to play hard every minute we’re out there. If we do that, who knows what will happen.”
What both coaches are quick to point out is that the latest renewal of their thriving rivalry ultimately is just one of 18 games leading to the big stage at the Augusta Civic Center come mid-February.
But that’s not to say it still isn’t special.
“It’s one of those games where you immediately see where you stand against the big dog, and at the same point no one wants to play them first but it’s a rivalry game for us,” said Bartlett. “It’s kind of like [the] Daytona . It’s the biggest race of the year,and it’s the first race, and this is kind of the same way. We want the [Heal] points Friday night, but we also know it’s just the first race.”